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John Adams appreciation - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
John Adams appreciation
After work, I felt like a walk, and I wandered down to Fanueil Hall. I noticed a lot of people wandering around in colonial era costumes. You see them down there sometimes, tempting tourists to get their pictures taken with them for a buck, which goes to the schools. But there were a lot, and I never recalled seeing so many British soldier costumes down there. When I came out after having dinner in Quincy Market, there were even more costumed people from both sides milling around, and I scratched my head and said, "Hmmm. This is meaningful. What is... Oh."

See, it's the fifth of March--the two hundred and thirty-fifth anniversary of the Boston Massacre, which occurred only about half a block from Fanueil Hall, in front of the Old State House (I was standing on the plaza you see in front; every year on the Fourth of July, the Declaration of Independence is read from the balcony). This isn't one of Boston's odd historical holidays; I'd forgotten totally. But all the folks down there were doing a reenactment.

A brief history of the massacre, which is probably better-labeled, "the Boston British-Troops-Fire-Back-After-Showing-An-Insane-Amount-of-Patience-Incident." Things had been building for awhile. Troop presence had been growing, and now was at about a soldier for every eight people in the city, many in forced quartering in the houses, because of unrest over taxes and a growing independence movement. To add insult to injury, the army didn't pay them enough, and they had to compete with local workers for jobs. There was a patriot boycott of British goods to protest taxes, and a shop that hadn't honored it had been the scene of a minor skirmish, in which an eleven-year-old boy had been killed. Later that week, there was another dust-up when a British soldier tried to get work that was being lost to colonials. There was a rumor going around that the troops planned some kind of vengeance on the fifth. I'm not clear on everything that led to it, but a mob formed outside the State House. Someone rang the church bells, which were the signal for a fire that needed fighting, and in the end, about seventy people were down there, chanting and screaming. Some of the bigger firebrands, who'd been taunting troops earlier, came in with sticks and stones, and were picking up heavy chunks of ice. Crispus Attucks tried to take a rifle from a soldier. A soldier was shoved to the ground and his gun went off. Then someone--no one knows who--shouted, "Fire." Five colonials ended up dead.

Pick up at the trial. Bostonians are screaming for blood. Two patriot lawyers, most prominently John Adams, have taken on the defense of the soldiers, who had been attacked by a mob. Adams wins the day; the soldiers are acquitted. There's some rumor that it was a fixed trial (Adams was very concerned that the world see that justice would be done, "even in Boston"), but it was very much not fixed by the mood of the populace, which was being stirred up by Adams's cousin, Samuel (yeah, the one the beer is named after). Late in John Adams's life, after he'd served as a president and an ambassador, been on the Declaration of Independence committee, and written the Massachusetts state Constitution, which was a major model for the federal one, Adams still maintained that serving as the defense counsel in that trial was the greatest service he did his country. I agreed.

Now, all of this wasn't new to me, but I always had a vague kind of annoyance at the firebrands, like they were being willfully stupid, or just weren't quite as big a force to be reckoned with as I'd think in admiring Adams for going against them. I mean... hello? The math's pretty easy.

But tonight, I had a chance to be part of that crowd. Granted, it was in a reenactment that everyone knew was a reenactment, but it was a perfectly familiar setting--a Boston political rally. People were jostling one another to see, someone was speaking incomprehensibly up front, and slogans were being chanted. Instead of "Hell no, we won't go," it was "Bloody-backs, go home," but still--perfectly and utterly familiar territory. I've had to weave through several of these sorts of things in the last few years, and barely take the time to double-check who's protesting what anymore (though my favorite was the anarchist march that had police protection). I was staying for this one. It was a little late getting started, and I couldn't see or hear anything. I was thinking about going home because really, what was I getting out of it? But I didn't want to look like a history-hating wuss, so I was sticking around when suddenly there were bayonets in front of the crowd, and they were moving forward.

The crowd pushed back, with shouts like, "Fire and be damned!" and "Fire if you dare!" and "Come out and fight; we're enough for you now!"

The bayonets remained raised. I still couldn't see or hear anything else.

They pushed forward again. There was some kind of indistinguishable noise.

And then there was gunfire.

I knew it was coming because it was a reenactment of an incident I knew, but it still managed to take me by surprise, because I couldn't see anything.

And I realized that the people who were there were neither stupid nor crazy, and that the anger they had must have been very deep. They didn't know that Attucks almost got a gun. They saw a handful of guys with sticks and ice, and they heard shouting--the same things that were everyday occurrences at the time. Then, out of the blue, they saw the soldiers who had been forced upon them firing at their own, and five of them ended up dead.

I didn't come out of it respecting them especially--they were still there chanting stupid slogans and throwing things, after all--but I had a whole new appreciation for what it must have been like for Adams, as a well-known patriot, to take on the defense, and for what he accomplished by doing so. The Revolution, at that point in time, was in the hands of violent lunatics with a mob mentality. And after the massacre, they were frightened violent lunatics. Adams grabbed hold of the reins of the Revolution, and, though he was quite mad on the subject of independence (you'd have to be a little crazy to take on the British Empire at the time), established by force of law and his acerbic personality a sane, logical, and just response. And he carried the day, and went on to the Continental Congress, and just... can I begin to explain how much I admire him? I admire Washington and Franklin as well, and have a passing amount of respect for Jefferson, but there was Adams, in the midst of Boston at its political craziest (which is a considerable amount of craziness), and he insisted on sanity.

Isn't that cool?

I feel a bit...: impressed impressed

15 comments or Leave a comment
kizmet_42 From: kizmet_42 Date: March 6th, 2005 03:27 am (UTC) (Link)
I've been reading about the writing the US Constitution and was most surprised to see that John Adams wasn't present in more than spirit: he was living in London as an ambassador to mad King George. I just always assumed he was there.

fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 6th, 2005 03:29 am (UTC) (Link)
I know... you'd just think he would. But he did write the Mass Constitution--which is also still in effect, to the best of my knowledge--which was a big influence on it.
rabidsamfan From: rabidsamfan Date: March 6th, 2005 03:51 am (UTC) (Link)
Oooh! I'm sorry I missed that! I wonder if they do it every year.

Yeah, I've been fond of John Adams for a while, although he had his quirks. Did you ever see "1776"?
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 6th, 2005 03:58 am (UTC) (Link)
Oooh! I'm sorry I missed that! I wonder if they do it every year.
Yeah, they do. I asked. I want to find on of those reenactment groups and do it next year!

Yes, I love 1776! "Fat George has declared us in rebellion--why in bloody hell can't they?"
rabidsamfan From: rabidsamfan Date: March 6th, 2005 04:36 am (UTC) (Link)
I had the great good fortune to see the original Broadway cast when they were on tour, and I am tickled pink that the DVD has restored the scenes which were cut from the theatrical release of the movie.

The commentary by the director is fascinating, too.
chocolatepot From: chocolatepot Date: March 6th, 2005 02:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
I got a question right on the AP US History test right because of, "New York courteously abstains."
chocolatepot From: chocolatepot Date: March 6th, 2005 02:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
Please ignore that second "right". *weeps*
cheshyre From: cheshyre Date: March 6th, 2005 03:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
My AP American History exam included a "which of the following wasn't part of the triangle trade?"
I don't know whether I got it right, but 1776 helped me narrow it down to 50/50, rather than 1 out of 5.
(Deleted comment)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 6th, 2005 04:35 am (UTC) (Link)
Second note: What impact do you think this experience had on Adams' decision to sign the Alien and Sedition Acts? (Which may be the single thing he did that's kept him off the National Mall...)

No doubt. That was, erm, not his finest hour. (Wiki entry)

At the same time, yes--I can see an influence. Adams would have been horrified at the aftermath of the French Revolution--it's what he fought to avoid by turning away from vengeance after the Boston Massacre. Jefferson, whose party this was aimed at, sympathized with the French revolutionaries. I think that this horror at what happened there--in the sense of knowing that it was a hair's breadth from happening here--would have informed his psychology about letting that kind of thing in, and wanting to prevent Jefferson from being elected. Of course, as generally happens, it backfired and fed Jefferson's election instead of mitigating against it.

I think it had more to do with his personality quirks, though--his jealousy of the popularity of Washington and Jefferson, and his short temper. I like the dude, but he was pretty frustrated by the end.

I still think he deserves a monument, not necessarily as a president, but as a founding father.
versinae From: versinae Date: March 6th, 2005 04:43 am (UTC) (Link)
I was just thinking about Crispus Attucks the other day, but I couldn't remember where in US history he was from. I knew it was some sort of rebellion, but my mind went to southern slave rebellions instead. So thank you!

There was a kid in my Sudbury HS named Sam Adams, we thought that was rather funny. There's a local politician in Portland OR named Sam Adams, city council member or something, but it's not quite as amusing all the way across the country and when you're not in HS.
From: inyron Date: March 6th, 2005 07:13 am (UTC) (Link)
That is very cool indeed.
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 6th, 2005 07:18 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm Darth Pipes and I approved this message...

Great post, Fern. My favorite period of history to read about is the American Revolution and I read McCullough's book on Adams. Fantastic stuff. I would also recommend for anyone the Adams-Jefferson Letters. The correspondance between these two is incredibly engaging as they discussed a wide variety of subjects. The recent additions also have the correspondance between Abigail Adams and Jefferson.

It is hard to believe that John Adams wasn't there for the writing of the Constitution. If I recall, I believe Adams did write a series of papers on the Constitution that were published in the U.S. around that time.

I remember reading that the Mass Constitution is the oldest constitution in the world.
ann_mcn From: ann_mcn Date: March 6th, 2005 12:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
I suspect that most of our noisy politicians and commentators would never respect or understand why John Adams defended the British soldiers. I wish we had more of his integrity and courage active in politics now.
ivylore From: ivylore Date: March 6th, 2005 12:44 pm (UTC) (Link)
It's been soooo long since I've thought about that, although with just the mention of the name Crispus Attucks it's all coming back to me.

Salem was on City Confidential last night. I had a full on bout of nostalgia.
cheshyre From: cheshyre Date: March 6th, 2005 03:10 pm (UTC) (Link)
Did you see the exhibit of artifacts in the BPL's old building last month? I think it just closed.
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